After a year of closures due to COVID-19, the Susan Schwaid Early Learning Center will reopen for summer school and fall classes.
After more than a year away, children again will soon roam the halls of Temple Emanu-El’s early learning center.
Following Sarasota County Schools' lead in spring 2020, temple leaders made the decision to close the Susan Schwaid Early Learning Center to in-person classes for an extra week following spring break as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold.
After the week passed, temple leaders knew it still wasn’t safe to return to classes so they keep pushing the return back. Eventually, they closed the school for the remainder of the school year with intents of reopening in the fall.
However, when conditions hadn’t improved by August 2020, temple leaders made the decision to keep the school, which serves children ages 15 months through pre-kindergarten, closed for the 2020-21 school year.
“We were not planning to stay closed for this long,” executive director Christine Elliott said. “But we wanted to be fair to our staff who may have wanted to seek employment somewhere else and our parents as they make a huge decision to plan childcare. We didn’t want to keep them on the hook.”
At the same time, Temple Emanu-El’s campus was closed. Religious school, services and all other functions were held virtually. Additionally, because it’s an early learning school, it would be difficult for parents to monitor their children if they were to learn virtually.
“It’s not like with a 2- or 3-year-old you can leave them in front of a computer and go to work,” Elliott said. “So the board made the agonizing decision to temporarily close the school.”
When the school closed, it had 53 students in its care. Nine educators were employed by the school, many of whom had to seek alternate jobs for the past year.
After monitoring the situation and surveying parents and staff about their comfort level with returning, the school will open in June for summer camp and will be back in full swing for the 2021-22 school year.
Rabbi Michael Shefrin, who oversees the temple’s educational program, said the decision to reopen was not taken lightly.
“We weren’t just looking at the numbers and the science only,” he said. “We’re also looking at the individual soul that could be impacted if we were to rush to open or stay closed too long. It wasn’t just a light switch for us. We wanted to open effectively, safely and usefully for our families.”
The school is now focused on hiring staff and regrowing its student population. Shefrin said temple leaders never considered keeping the school closed permanently.
“A commandment in the Torah is to raise up children and bring them into society to be good, caring, compassionate, kind people,” he said. “So there is a sense of obligation to make our community and our world a more loving and kind place.”
Shefrin said the school, which is open to children of all beliefs and religions, also provides an opportunity to combat anti-Semitism.
“When a child or parent or grandparent comes out of our institution, whether it’s for class or a celebration, they’re learning,” he said. “These elements are formative in helping to dilute the amount of hatred and animosity, not just toward the Jewish community, but every community, so we’re making global connections through our kindness curriculum.”
Typically, the students are split into four classes, though the school has the capacity for eight to nine classes. The 9,000-square-foot campus also includes a multipurpose room, a youth lounge and a playground.
Although school leaders have taken various steps to prepare for a return, such as bulking up cleaning supplies and staff, Elliott acknowledged some parents may still feel nervous.
“We’ve done our research. We know there are still some concerns and there’s always going to be some safety risks,” she said. “But we feel we’ve done enough research and there’s enough information out there that we can comfortably welcome our families back.”
Summer school slots are full, but the center is still accepting enrollment for the fall. Part time and full time care is available and pricing depends on which option is chosen.